For a while now, I have been coming across rather negative takes on the Dalai Lama’s “Beyond Religion” book from last year. So, when I saw it at an airport bookshop today, I bought it and started reading it on my way home across the Atlantic. Before I tell you more about it, I have to admit to having a deep-seated fondness for and admiration of the present Dalai Lama, stemming from having read quite a bit of his writings, having seen interviews with him (and that gem of a chat between him and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, mentioned here some time ago) and also from counting the movie Kundun among my all-time favorites. With this “baggage” in mind, you'll understand that I was rather skeptical about the book’s reviews and dubious about their being representative of its author’s thoughts.
The criticisms tend to focus on quotes like: “in today’s secular world, religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics” and “when negative attitudes towards religion [...] are motivated by a concern for justice, they must be respected.” Several commentators are then quite content to take these, become indignant and launch into extensive rants in defense of religion. I find that rather misguided and not only a misrepresentation of the Dalai Lama’s thought, but also woefully naïve.
Even just a reading of the introduction to the book makes one thing crystal clear - the Dalai Lama is not turning away from religion or finding it lacking in any way: “religion has helped millions of people in the past, helps millions of people today, and will continue to help millions in the future” and “it may seem [... that] I am advocating the exclusion of religion from ethical systems, or even from all areas of public life [... - t]his is not at all what I have in mind.”
So, what is he getting at?
“[My statements] may seem strange coming from someone who from a very early age has lived as a monk in robes. Yet I see no contradiction here. My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and to those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.”All I can say to that is: Amen! Instead of renouncing religion or in any way devaluing it, the Dalai Lama is saying: let’s look for what we have in common and for the good that is deep-rooted in our human nature and nourish it. In fact, he puts the relationship between the ethics that is not contingent on religious beliefs and the ethics that is thus:
“Ethics and inner values without religious content are like water, something we need every day for health and survival. Ethics and inner values based in a religious context are more like tea. The tea we drink is mostly composed of water, but it also contains some other ingredients - tea leaves, spices, perhaps some sugar or, at least in Tibet, salt - and this makes it more nutritious and sustaining and something we want every day.”This, to my mind, is a beautiful way of putting it, which makes me even sadder to see that the first part of the above quote gets bandied about as further evidence for the Dalai Lama considering religion to be of little value. Instead, I believe, that his metaphor is spot on and emphasizes the riches of faith, while also highlighting the universal access to a great deal of what is good about it. Note, that he is not saying - ethics without religion is water and the extra ingredients that can turn it into tea are religion. He is saying, religion is tea (i.e., water and other ingredients together) - it is a richer, more complex entity than what is accessible otherwise rather than an optional, minimal add-on. In this sense, the striving to bring ethics beyond religion is one of doing so for an ethics that is very much inside religion - like water is in tea.
From my Christian perspective I can rephrase what the Dalai Lama is saying as God, whom I believe to be the source of all goodness and happiness, making a great deal of himself accessible even to those who don’t believe in him (He is love, so why wouldn't He?). This is a source of joy to me and - like the Dalai Lama - something I am grateful for and want to build on in my relationships with all. I am also grateful for what God makes accessible to me through His gift of faith, but it would be foolish of me to be jealous of His generosity and I would be blind if I saw His love only among those who hold the same beliefs as I do. The Dalai Lama’s attempts to tease out what he sees as being universal (i.e., non-belief-contingent) aspects of ethics are to me greatly positive and directed towards making God’s presence evermore widely and clearly felt on earth.
Re-reading the above, a possible misunderstanding of it comes to my mind: “Are you saying that the ethics of religious people is superior? That those of no religious faith are in some way second class ethical?” Not at all! I believe that we are all fully capable of acting selflessly, for the good of our neighbors, those in need and even our enemies - having faith is not a prerequisite for this (and this is essentially the Dalai Lama’s point). So, does faith make any difference? Absolutely! I believe that my faith helps me greatly in trying to live in the above way. Instead of a feeling of superiority it engenders a sense of responsibility in me though, and brings to mind Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30): from those to whom more was given, more will be expected.